David Burns in his book Feeling Good describes "labeling and mislabeling" cognitive distortions:

Personal labeling means creating a completely negative self-image based on your errors. It is an extreme form of overgeneralization. The philosophy behind it is "The measure of a man is the mistakes he makes." There is a good chance you are involved in a personal labeling whenever you describe your mistakes with sentences beginning with "I'm a..." For example, when you miss your putt on the eighteenth hole, you might say, "I'm a born loser" instead of "I goofed up on my putt." Similarly, when the stock you invested in goes down instead of up, you might think, "I'm a failure" instead of "I made a mistake."

Labeling yourself is not only self-defeating, it is irrational. Your self cannot be equated with any one thing you do. Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, and actions. To put it another way, you are more like a river than a statue. Stop trying to define yourself with negative labels—they are overly simplistic and wrong. Would you think of yourself exclusively as an "eater" just because you eat, or a "breather" just because you breathe? This is nonsense, but such nonsense becomes painful when you label yourself out of a sense of your own inadequacies.

When you label other people, you will invariably generate hostility. A common example is the boss who sees his occasionally irritable secretary as "an uncooperative bitch." Because of this label, he resents her and jumps at every chance to criticize her. She, in turn, labels him an "insensitive chauvinist" and complains about him at every opportunity. So, around and around they go at each other's throats, focusing on every weakness or imperfection as proof of the other's worthlessness.

Mislabeling involves describing an event with words that are inaccurate and emotionally heavily loaded. For example, a woman on a diet ate a dish of ice cream and thought, "How disgusting and repulsive of me. I'm a pig." These thoughts made her so upset she ate the whole quart of ice cream!

But labeling and mislabeling seem equivalent. I see no difference between, "She's irritated by me, therefore she's an uncooperative bitch," and, "I ate a dish, therefore I'm a pig". How does David Burns differentiate between these cognitive distortions? How do other cognitive therapists differentiate?


It seems that in this case David Burns describes Labeling as an overgeneralization, not necessarily a misattribution. As in his example, a breather does breathe, it is just not the only aspect of the breather.

Mislabeling in this example is an inaccurate label, not an overgeneralization but qualitatively false, and "emotionally heavily loaded".

This explanation would fit with regular English semantics for the words, so it seems to make sense. I would not qualify the terms Labeling and Mislabeling as rigidly defined per this text though.

  • $\begingroup$ Amen to the last sentence; this is a poor authority for attributional terminology. $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Mar 26 '14 at 18:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.